[From Sports Illustrated]
Joe Posnanski has been running a series of posts on the 100 Greatest Baseball Players Ever. I gather this will turn into a book. The posts were coming pretty quickly a couple of months ago, but then he went to Sochi to cover the Winter Olympics and things slowed down, which has been fine with me. The post-every-few-days pace allows me to enjoy each new entry a little more.
Today we learned Posnanski’s choice for number 48, Bob Feller. Posnanski attempts to explain just how extraordinary a pitcher Feller was from the moment he arrived in the big leagues at the age of 17 in 1936 through the 1946 and 1947 seasons, despite missing all of the 1942-1944 seasons and most of 1945 while serving in World War II. We can safely assume that Feller’s rare level of dominance would have continued right through the war years. (See Feller’s stats here.)
One accomplishment that Posnanski highlighted caught my fancy. Before describing it, I’ll take a detour into golf.
You are perhaps familiar with the golfing notion of shooting your age. The par score for an 18-hole golf course is typically 70 or 71 or 72. Top golfers will routinely score in the 60s. On a handful of occasions, players have shot 59s in tournament play. (A list of occasions when men have done it is here.)
The best players, when in their 30s or 40s, are never going to shoot a score equal to or lower than their age. However—and this is one of the benefits of aging—once you hit your 60s you can begin to think about “shooting your age.” It’s not that unusual a feat, at least for the golfing elite.
I haven’t played a round of golf in years, but even if I had, I’m too young to be shooting my age. In a few years, who knows? I could take up the game again and at least dream of shooting my age.
Oh, I just found an article from a few years ago by the WSJ golf writer, John Paul Newport on “The Wonders of Shooting Your Age.” Doing so is more common than I realized:
Phil Schlosser has always been a determined fellow. As the founder and owner of a forging company in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., his happiest moments came in defying competitors who whispered that he’d taken on a job his facilities couldn’t handle. “Every fiber in my body started to vibrate,” the strapping 84-year-old told me recently at his golf-course home in an elite Palm Springs-area community called The Reserve. “And I thought, ‘I’ll figure out how to do her.’ ” Usually he did.
So it’s not surprising that 11 years ago, when he was paired at his golf club in Bend, Ore., with two major-league baseball players who almost totally ignored him, he grew miffed and took action. Despite having scored less than 80 only three or four times in his life, he rolled in an eight-foot birdie putt on the final hole for a 73. “How’s that for an old man!” he told the players, whom he prefers not to name.
It was the first time he shot his age or better — and it was on the number. Since then, including Friday’s round of 81, Mr. Schlosser has shot his age an additional 381 times. That’s far from a record: A Minnesotan named T. Edison Smith, a retired physical-education professor, has shot his age or better nearly 2,700 times. Ed Ervasti, a member at Turtle Creek in Tequesta, Fla., and other clubs, last year at age 93 shot 72 on a course measuring more than 6,000 yards.
I shouldn’t just dream. I should do it.
Back to baseball, and the notion I was previously unfamiliar with of “striking out your age,” which Posnanski describes in writing about Feller.
He made his Major League debut two weeks later by pitching one shaky inning against Washington. He made his first big league start about month later, August 23, against the St. Louis Browns. He struck out 15. That’s when the papers really went crazy. To sum up the coverage in one sentence: This lad, who learned to throw by pegging at a makeshift backstop in his father’s cow pasture, this boy wonder not long out of short pants, this high school boy has a future brighter than the sun.
Less than a month after that, Feller had his most remarkable day of that remarkable year. With his father in the stands, he struck out 17 Philadelphia Athletics — an American League record. The United Press account probably described it best: “A fastball, a mystifying curve and a flare of wildness that made the Philadelphia athletics step back from the plate made 17-year-old Bob Feller today the amazed possessor of a New American League record of 17 strikeouts.”
That’s 17 strikeouts in one game at the age of 17!
Feller is one of only two players, by the way, to strike out his age. He struck out 17 at 17. Chicago’s Kerry Wood, more than 60 years later, struck out 20 at 20.
I missed Feller’s feat but remember Wood’s. What I don’t remember is anyone making the connection to striking out one’s age.
Alas, doing so has an age upper bound. You’re not going to do it once you turn 28. Too late.
Oh, I know. It’s possible to strike out more than 27 players in a game. A batter strikes out, the ball gets away from the catcher, the batter runs to first and arrives safely. It counts as a strikeout, but not an out. (Here’s a list of the occasions when a pitcher struck out 4 in an inning. It was done just last October.) If enough players strike out but get on base, you can have unlimited strikeouts. But basically 27 is the natural limit. Or let’s say 36 to be safe, nine consecutive four-strikeout innings.
This is one rare feat, for sure. And one I can’t dream of doing. Even if I somehow defy the laws of aging and become a professional pitcher at my age, it’s too late for me to strike out my age.
No baseball when I retire. I’ll focus on golf.
A week ago I finished Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, Nick Reding’s account of life in Oelwein, Iowa, in the first years of this century. This morning I finished The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game, Edward Achorn’s account of the 1883 season in the American Association.
What next? Why not combine the two themes? A book that recounts a season of baseball in Iowa in the early years of this century would be in order. And what do you know? Such a book appeared five weeks ago: Lucas Mann’s Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere. Perfect timing. I’m now a few pages into it.
I learned about the book last month at the Harper’s blog, where Jeffery Gleaves had six questions for Mann. (A week later, the NYT ran its own online Mann interview.) Of course, the book isn’t simply about baseball. It’s about life in Clinton, Iowa, and about the author’s own travails. Here’s the blurb:
An unforgettable chronicle of a year of minor-league baseball in a small Iowa town that follows not only the travails of the players of the Clinton LumberKings but also the lives of their dedicated fans and of the town itself.
Award-winning essayist Lucas Mann delivers a powerful debut in his telling of the story of the 2010 season of the Clinton LumberKings. Along the Mississippi River, in a Depression-era stadium, young prospects from all over the world compete for a chance to move up through the baseball ranks to the major leagues. Their coaches, some of whom have spent nearly half a century in the game, watch from the dugout. In the bleachers, local fans call out from the same seats they’ve occupied year after year. And in the distance, smoke rises from the largest remaining factory in a town that once had more millionaires per capita than any other in America.
Mann turns his eye on the players, the coaches, the fans, the radio announcer, the town, and finally on himself, a young man raised on baseball, driven to know what still draws him to the stadium. His voice is as fresh and funny as it is poignant, illuminating both the small triumphs and the harsh realities of minor-league ball. Part sports story, part cultural exploration, part memoir, Class A is a moving and unique study of why we play, why we watch, and why we remember.
In the Harper’s interview, Gleaves asks, “Why not write this book as pure journalism? Why insert your own story?” To which Mann replies:
So much of how I write is wrapped up in voice. I write personally; that’s how it comes out. I like essays and nonfiction that try to do a lot of things at once, that investigate and report on subjects but never shy away from showing how all that observation affects them. I’m terrified of omniscience, both as a writer and a reader. Lawrence Weschler, the great New Yorker writer, has a quote along the lines of, “I like to insert a strong I into what I’m writing not out of some sense of egomania, but precisely the opposite.” I agree with that. I don’t have the hubris to traditionally report on something, then step back, remove my personality, biases, memories, and screw-ups, and speak with authority. I’m the neurotic, often-confused dude who is trying to figure out why all this stuff is important to him, and that crucial, intimate honesty isn’t something I’d ever want to remove from the work.
Mann’s bleak description of Clinton in the opening pages is redolent of Methland‘s Oelwein and Ottumwa, Iowa.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Clinton was the center of a lumber empire. Millionaires were made here. … Though the industry and its spoils have long since disappeared, some mansions are still here. …
A lot of things are gone. Things downtown closed; some collapsed. Things burned. In 1968 the sociopathic hippie son of a local businessman set fire to nine buildings …
That hippie boy set the most famous fires, but not the last ones. Fans have told me that it feels as if something were always aflame now. When buildings are old, when nobody’s watching, anything can be tinder. Some of the fires are on YouTube. The dilapidated apartment with the mother and her two toddlers inside. The ancient white house without smoke detectors. The Lutheran church with flames dancing in the stained-glass windows. Old homes with no life in them, no care for them, so eventually they burn. …
… Allied Steel, back when steel, along with paper, along with wood, along with plastic, along with corn, catalyzed the town. But Allied left with a lot of other businesses, and left behind 100,000 tons of coal tar blocks down from the riverfront stadium, not cleaned for decades.
As for the baseball, two players have been introduced so far: shortstop Nick Franklin, of whom great things are anticipated, and Nicaraguan pitcher Erasmo Ramirez. Clinton is a Mariner farm team, and Franklin was big news here in Seattle two weeks ago when he was called up to the majors for the first time to replace one-time-can’t-miss second baseman Dustin Ackley (the second overall selection in the 2009 draft, behind Stephen Strasburg). In his fourth game, Franklin hit two home runs. Ramirez also made it to the majors, pitching in 16 games for the Mariners last year with mixed success, but is back in Triple-A Tacoma this season.
I don’t yet know what to expect from the book. And I’m not yet committed, having downloaded only the free opening pages to my Kindle. I suspect I’ll keep going. Certainly Boston Globe reviewer Adam Langer would have me do so:
Watching Clinton’s star pitcher, Erasmo Ramirez, strike out 12 on the road in Quad Cities, Mann wryly notes that the performance was watched by more people than will ever watch Mann do anything.
But he is being overly modest. For if there’s one surefire big-league prospect among the has-beens, might-bes, and never-will-bes who populate this memoir, it’s Mann himself who, in his first trip to the plate, knocks it out of the park.
The fate of most writers may ultimately be not all that different from that of most ballplayers. Decades from now, the vast majority of the names currently seen on the spines of books will probably seem as unfamiliar as those found in a pack of random 2013 baseball cards. But I’d be willing to wager that Lucas Mann is one of the names that will endure.
Three weeks ago, at the New Yorker blog, Jon Michaud wrote about a book I might otherwise have missed, Edward Achorn’s The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game. As Michaud explains,
the dramatic 1883 pennant chase in the American Association forms the core of Edward Achorn’s newly published history, “The Summer of Beer and Whiskey,” but it is far from the only reason to read his book. The eighteen-eighties were a pivotal time for the national pastime. Baseball (or “base ball,” as it was known then) was losing fans, many of whom were disenchanted by high ticket prices, cheating scandals, and the malevolent influence of gamblers on the sport. In 1881, a newspaper editor referred to baseball as “a dead crow.” Achorn argues that the American Association did much to revive interest in the sport and propel baseball toward its place at the heart of American culture. Combining the narrative skills of a sportswriter with a historian’s depth of knowledge and stockpile of detail, Achorn has produced a book that is both entertaining and informative.
I downloaded the book’s free opening portion from Amazon and had a look, anticipating that I might turn to it on finishing Rachel Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers. But instead I turned to Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town.
After that, I wasn’t sure I was ready for Achorn’s book. I have a long list of books that struck me as potentially more interesting. They’re not short, though, whereas The Summer of Beer and Whiskey is just 260 pages. Two nights ago I started it. I’m now about 145 pages in.
Like any good writer of history, Achorn excels at making time vanish, so that the events of the 1883 baseball season seem as real as today’s Mariner 2-1 loss to the Yankees (another wasted pitching gem by Felix Hernandez).
I had long imagined that late nineteeth-century baseball wasn’t the real thing. It was certainly different. In his blog post, Michaud touches on this:
Among the many rewards of reading Achorn’s book is learning about the ways that baseball in the nineteenth century differed from the sport we now know. Games were officiated by a single umpire. Players did not wear numbers on their uniforms, nor did they use gloves. Before they took the field, they often served as ticket-takers at the ballpark gates. The first team to bat was determined by a coin flip. But the most startling difference can be found in pitching. The pitching leaderboard for the American Association’s ninety-eight-game 1883 season would be unfathomable to the modern fan used to five-man rotations and squadrons of bullpen specialists. The Reds’ Will White led the league with forty-three wins. He pitched five hundred and seventy-seven innings, including sixty-four complete games. His earned-run average was 2.09. On the Fourth of July, 1883, Tim Keefe of the Metropolitans gave a one-man display of pitching fireworks, hurling both ends of a doubleheader, winning the first game with a one-hitter and the second with a two-hitter.
Yet, in Achorn’s hands, the differences melt away. Team owners want to control player rights. (We learn about the origin of the reserve clause, which bound a player to a team forever.) Players abuse substances to their detriment. (Alcohol.) Teams in the thick of a pennant race attract big crowds. And an upstart league competes against an established one, until the older league merges with and absorbs the more successful teams of the new league. (Think 1950 and the absorption of the All-America Football Conference with the NFL, or 1976 and the NBA-ABA merger.)
That thing about players not using gloves, though–that’s different. So too the absence of a rule that when a pitcher hits a batter with a ball, the batter goes to first base. From what I’ve read so far, these differences led to high injury rates. And no batting helmets either. This was a dangerous sport.
Again, though, it’s the similarities that come through. However dangerous professional baseball was, it sure beat working in factories or mines at a time when there wasn’t much in the way of protection or insurance for workers. The player salaries, in relative terms, were nothing like those of today. Yet, they were viewed as privileged, as this passage attests:
The Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette … found it astonishing that any professional player would squander his extraordinary good luck by becoming a drunkard. After all, many men toiled six days a week, ten hours a day, doing brutal, dangerous physical labor for a pittance. The paper noted that:
a ballplayer’s path in summer time is on beds of flowery ease. He gets a big salary, travels all over the country, stops at good hotels, and has the best of everything. He is paid by the public to furnish one hour and a half of amusement each afternoon [games weren’t dragged out by television ads between innings or players stepping out of the batter’s box to adjust their clothes], and he certainly should be able to keep clear of whiskey during the season, especially as he had all winter to get even. The great trouble with some men on the Allegheny club is that they look on base ball merely as a pretext to open their pores and enable them to sweat out the whiskey drank the night before. They regularly fill up and regularly sweat it out at the expense of the reputation of the management and the regret and sorrow of all lovers of base ball hereabouts.
Too bad Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, the heroes of the 1986 Mets, didn’t read this warning before squandering their own careers.
Another difference is worth mentioning. Not a baseball difference, but a difference in the distribution of US population between then and now. Much of the book focuses on teams in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. In the 1880 census, the largest eight cities, in order, were New York, Philadelphia, Brooklyn [not consolidated with New York until 1898], Chicago, Boston, St. Louis, Baltimore, and Cincinnati. In the 2010 census, Philadelphia had dropped from 2nd to 5th, St. Louis from 6th to 58th, and Cincinnati from 8th to 65th. (This is a bit deceptive, since suburbs weren’t as significant in 1880 as now, so one should compare metropolitan area populations. Doing so makes the decline of St. Louis and Cincinnati less dramatic.) It’s a very different US that the book describes.
Jumping ahead three decades to 1900, a review of the census clarifies why it is that the cities with teams in both the National and American Leagues were New York [including Brooklyn], Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Boston. They were, in that order, the five largest US cities. Which reminds me, I should explain that the 1880s St. Louis Browns team of the American Association featured in the book was not the ancestor of the later American League St. Louis Browns (still later to move to Baltimore and become the Orioles). Rather, it was the ancestor of today’s St. Louis Cardinals.
I haven’t gone to many Mariners baseball games in recent years. Until last weekend, the last time I was at Safeco Field was almost two years ago. The year before, my brother-in-law Jim had won an employee contest that had allowed him to pick a game the next season for which he would have full rights to a suite. He chose a Saturday night game on July 2, to celebrate his and Tamara’s 20th anniversary, and invited the family. (I wrote about it here.) That was our lone game that season, and then we managed to let last season pass without a game.
I’ve already written about the game we went to last weekend, in the context of its being Felix Hernandez bobblehead doll night. What I didn’t explain is that we had Diamond Club tickets. This was our friend Judy’s idea.
Judy and her family have had season tickets behind home plate since 1977, the Mariners’ first season. We’ve been fortunate to join Judy for many games, both at the Kingdome and at Safeco. The seats are maybe fifteen rows back from the field. The last couple of times we went, I noticed that people seated in the first few rows had food served to them at their seats. I didn’t know what the deal was. Now I do. It’s the Diamond Club.
What Judy suggested to Gail is that we choose a game for which she had tickets and she would trade them in for Diamond Club seats. The Diamond Club consists of the first eight rows behind home plate in the two sections immediately left and right of the line that runs from the pitcher’s mound and home plate straight into the stands, as well as the first eight rows of the two sections just left and right of these two. (The outer two sections run into the sides of the dugouts, and so aren’t very wide.) But more than that, the club consists of the space under the stands in these sections, with a restaurant, a bar, and more.
One enters the club from outside by going to the ticket takers at the southwest corner of Safeco, walking through an area that leads up to the stands, and then showing tickets again at the club entrance in order to be admitted. Inside the door, you are greeted, given an overview if you haven’t been in the club before, and shown to a restaurant table. It’s buffet eating, but first you can order drinks at your table before heading to the food.
Everything, I should add, is included in the price of the ticket. And these tickets aren’t cheap, though Judy pointed out that one could pay almost as much just for the seating in the stands, so it’s a pretty good deal. One doesn’t have to eat and drink to excess to feel like one has gotten one’s money worth.
The buffet is set up in an upper level surrounding restaurant tables. Then there’s a lower level with the bar, booth seating along a wall (where we were), and still more seating down around the bend. We ordered our drinks, then took our plates and headed back up to see what our options were. At one table, a man was making crab cakes in a frying pan. At another, there was mashed potatoes, asparagus, and barbecued ribs. Maybe fish too. I have to say, I should have written this post a week ago. I’m forgetting. Next, there was a man carving turkey and slicing meatloaf. Around the bend, on another wall, was Caesar salad, an array of fresh and roast vegetables, fruit, potato chips, and lots more. Then came desserts, which we didn’t look at closely until later. One table had a chocolate fountain with bananas and strawberries for dipping or coating. And along a counter were seven or eight cakes and pies to choose from.
Hard not to eat to excess. And from our booth, we could see a large grab-and-go center for people to get food to bring to the stands, or to come in from the stands for. Bratwurst, pizza, pretzels. And about a dozen candy dispensers on the wall.
There was a refrigerator behind our booth. It took me a while to realize that this was for our use too, filled with water and soda. This is all near one of the openings to the stands. By the next opening was a popcorn station, with hot butter too. And the next opening had boxes of candy of various types along with a soft ice cream dispenser. Oh, back by the brats and pizza were bags of caramel chocolate popcorn and some other type of popcorn. It’s really too much.
Game time was 7:10, with the club opening a couple of hours ahead of time. We were there shortly after opening, and at our seats an hour ahead of game time. The seats were in the seventh of the eight Diamond Club rows, about six to eight seats in from the center line. Which means we had a pretty darned good view of everything, including all the people milling around behind home plate for the pre-game activities. A boy and his dad who would go out to centerfield to catch balls shot from a machine in order to win assorted prizes. A boy who threw a ceremonial first pitch. Later, a group of kids from some school in Federal Way who were marched out just in front to sing the Star-Spangled Banner. But before all that, we caught the tail end of Rangers batting practice, with Rangers manager Ron Washington leaning against the batting cage watching his charges.
And did I mention the food? Yes, we could go back in any time for the grab-and-go offerings. But we also had menus at our seats from which we could order burgers, hot dogs, ice cream, drinks, and more, which would be brought to us by the next half inning. The sandwich special that night was a cheesesteak that I had my heart set on when we read about it on arriving at the club. However, after the dinner we ate, it simply wasn’t possible. I did eat some of Gail’s chocolate caramel corn. And I couldn’t resist grabbing a box of gummy bears on our way to the seats. That pretty much did me in. No cheesesteak for me.
The game? Oh yeah. We didn’t pay just to eat. We paid to see baseball. And so we did. There’s Felix Hernandez, at the top of the post throwing a pitch. The photo gives a better sense of where we were seated than my words provide. Great location.
But Felix had an off night, was hit hard, and we lost. A bleak game. Plus, a totally unrelated issue arose in an early inning and I found myself distracted for about two innings in a series of texts with Joel, despite his protestations that I should just enjoy the game and get back to him afterward.
I don’t imagine we’ll be getting back to the club soon. When we do—if we do—I might go for the seats farthest away from the center, over by one or the other dugout. For one thing, they’re just far enough off center to be beyond the screen that protects us from foul balls, offering a clearer view. A first- or second-row seat there would be pretty cool. And I might space out my eating better, so I’ll have room to eat the sandwich special at my seat.
According to this history of bobblehead dolls,
the bobble head doll seemed to be deemed a 20th century relic by the turn of the century, but Major League Baseball again brought back the bobble head doll from pop culture oblivion. The San Francisco Giants presented the Willie Mays bobble head doll on May 9, 1999 to 20,000 visitors to their ballpark celebrating the 40th anniversary of Candlestick Park, which was the last year of the Giants playing at that stadium by the bay. That ushered in a whole new era of bobble head madness. Baseball teams throughout the United States began to offer the bobble head doll as a promotional item for their fans and bobble head dolls were one of the most popular and eagerly sold items in the early days of eBay along with Pez.
Here in Seattle, the first bobblehead giveaway was at a 2001 baseball game and featured then-rookie breakout star Ichiro. In the years since, I’ve never attended a Mariners gave during a bobblehead giveaway night.
Until last night. We weren’t aiming to get a Felix bobblehead. We just wanted to see Felix pitch. When our friend Judy suggested that we join her for a game this weekend, we agreed to choose the game that Felix would start. As a bonus, it was Felix Hernandez Perfect Game Bobblehead night.
I’ve never seen such a crowd two hours before game time. Well, come to think of it, I don’t know when I’ve ever arrived two hours before game time. We did last night, though not because of the bobblehead promotion. (More on our early arrival and special evening in a separate post.) There were huge lines to get in early, since only the first 20,000 people would get their own Felix.
I have no idea why last night was designated as the giveaway night. It boosted attendance, but didn’t relate in any way to when Felix pitched his perfect game, which was last August 15. The box itself is a souvenir. Below is the front side.
And here’s the back side, listing every batter Felix faced in the perfect game and the result.
I should explain what a perfect game is. It’s one in which no batter reaches base, whether by a hit, a walk, an error, or being hit by a pitch. Nine innings pitched, three batters an inning, twenty-seven up and twenty-seven down. Well, more innings if needed until the pitcher’s own team finally wins the game. (There’s the famous 1959 game in which Harvey Haddix pitched twelve perfect innings, but his Pirates team didn’t score. He lost it in the thirteenth. That, alas, doesn’t count as a perfect game.)
Perfect games are rare. Years go by without any. Felix’s was the last one, though it was one of three pitched last year. You can see the complete list here.
Anyway, this post isn’t about perfect games. It’s about Felix bobblehead dolls, two of which we are now pleased to own. Other proud owners include Gail’s sister Tamara, husband Jim, and son DJ. It was a big night for the family.
And perhaps last night also marks the start of a collection. I just checked. There’s one more bobblehead night this year, on August 10. It will be Ken Griffey Jr. “Mariners Hall of Fame” Bobblehead Night, in honor of his induction into the team’s hall of fame. Gail, should we get tickets?
St. Louis Cardinals great Stan Musial died today. I was too young to see him play at his peak. And when I began to go to baseball games, New York lacked a National league team, so the Cardinals didn’t come to town. But I saw him on TV, and I grew up understanding what a giant he was.
What made him a giant? The start of an answer lies in his stats, which you can examine here. Or, you can watch the excerpt above from a 1990 documentary, which shows his final at bats in 1963.
In the NYT obituary, Richard Goldstein offers this summary:
Musial won seven batting championships, hit 475 home runs and amassed 3,630 hits. His brilliance lay in his consistency. He had 1,815 hits at home and 1,815 on the road. He drove in 1,951 runs and scored 1,949 runs. And his power could be explosive: he set a major league record, equaled only once, when he hit five home runs in a doubleheader.
“There is only one way to pitch to Musial — under the plate,” Leo Durocher, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodger and New York Giant teams that Musial often victimized, once said.
Musial played on three World Series championship teams, won three Most Valuable Player awards, had a career batting average of .331 while playing in the outfield and at first base, and was the fourth player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
He was the most cherished Cardinal of them all in a city that witnessed the exploits of Grover Cleveland Alexander and Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy Dean and the Gashouse Gang, Enos Slaughter, Marty Marion, Red Schoendienst, Ozzie Smith, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols.
I especially recommend Joe Posnanski’s blog post some time back, which he updated two months ago. Though brief, it is full of great tales. I’ll get you started with the first paragraph.
Stan Musial never got thrown out of a game. Never. Think about this for a moment. Musial played in 3,026 games in his career, or about as many as his contemporaries Joe DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky played combined. He played across different American eras — he played in the big leagues before bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, and he retired a few weeks before Kennedy was shot. He played when Jimmy Dorsey and Glenn Miller ruled the Top 40 charts, and he played when Elvis was thin, and he played when Chubby Checker twisted. He played before television, and after John Glenn orbited the earth. And he never once got thrown out of a baseball game.
Read the rest.
[AP Photo/James Finley]
The NYT crossword three days ago puzzled me. A typical Wednesday crossword has a theme built around several clues with long answers, ones that run at least half and perhaps the full width of the frame. This one, in contrast, had six starred clues, all with solutions that were five letters long. Even after I had filled in words for five of the six starred clues, I didn’t see what they had in common.
What’s a word ladder? I managed to get through a good part of my life without knowing. Then, on a trip to Colorado with Gail and Joel fifteen Augusts ago, I invented them (as no doubt many thousands of others have). We were staying for a few days in Estes Park, on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, before going down to Denver to see the Mariners play the Rockies at Coors Field. That was the first year of interleague play, and the Rockies and Mariners were the biggest hitting teams, if not the most successful, in the National and American Leagues. This series was getting a lot of attention, and we were thrilled to be there. But first, Rocky Mountain National Park and word ladders.
One morning, we headed to one of the park visitor centers near Estes Park. The Moraine Park Visitor Center I would guess, as I look over a map. There was a gigantic parking lot, beyond which was a small lake surrounded by a paved path. You could grab a little brochure and take a self-guided nature tour around the lake, stopping at each numbered sign to learn about the flora, fauna, and geology of the area. Which we did, along with many hundreds. As we returned to our starting point, Gail headed toward the parking lot. In surprise and dismay, I suggested that we hadn’t come all the way here just to walk on pavement with the masses. We needed to get a ways into the woods. Joel would have been 10 years old then. I don’t recall how he voted, but off we went, with packed lunches, up a bit of a hill, then onto a relatively flat trail through the woods. A couple of miles in, we reached a pond, sat on some pondside logs, and had lunch.
The word ladder came into play because we needed a way to keep Joel occupied, and so I threw out a four-letter word, challenging him to come up with a new one by changing a single letter. Then Gail did the same, then me, and so on. At some point, we decided that the loser would be the one who couldn’t come up with a new word when his or her turn came.
This game would prove to be a great discovery. Over the next year, it was our game of choice when we needed to pass time. Some years later, I learned that what we were doing was constructing word ladders, the point usually being not to produce ladders for as long as possible but to get from a known start to a known end, perhaps with a ladder of minimal length. Now I see, in the wikipedia entry, that Lewis Carroll is credited with inventing them.
When we played our game, we didn’t allow proper names, but one might wish to make proper names the starting and end points of a ladder. For example, let’s choose the two baseball greats Willie Mays and Babe Ruth. How can we get from Mays to Ruth in minimal length? Here’s one way: mays-rays-rats-ruts-ruth. See? It’s easy. And fun.
Back to Wednesday’s crossword. (Read no further if you wish to try it yourself.)
The six starred clues were:
Brother of Moses
Von Richthofen, e.g.
Element in the cleanser 20 Mule Team
Bklyn., Queens and others
Sonny and Chaz
I got these, but I was puzzled. Enlightenment came in three stages:
1. I realized that they formed a word ladder.
2. I realized that the two ends were intended to be Hank Aaron and Bobby Bonds.
3. Two days later, by chance, I read that the fifth anniversary of Bonds’ breaking Aaron’s career home run record had just taken place.
Now I understood the puzzle’s point. Five years ago, on August 7, Bonds hit his 756th career home run. A little obscure, no? Not that one needs to know that to solve the puzzle. One doesn’t even need to know who Aaron and Bonds are. But really, did anyone solving this puzzle recognize that it fell on the anniversary of the record?